Friday, March 18, 2011

Interview With the Author: Jim Vitti- Brooklyn Dodgers in Cuba

As I wrote about previously, "Brooklyn Dodgers in Cuba" is a new book being released on the 28th of this month by Arcadia Publishing. When I first heard about it I immediately sent along some questions to the author, Jim Vitti, hoping to hear more about the book and his experience in writing it. Thankfully, he responded back.

Jim Vitti's two year journey about the Dodgers in Cuba started during his research for a book about Baseball on Catalina Island- a book subsequently called "Chicago Cubs: Baseball on Catalina Island."
While researching that one, I stumbled onto the notion of ‘baseball on islands.’ Two of our favorite concepts, but like hot dogs and chocolate you usually don’t think of them at the same time. But a nifty notion, which I began to explore . . .
Soon, he discovered that Baseball was played on islands throughout the world.
But what caught my interest was the Dodger camps in Cuba...

So it seemed like a natural semi-sequel, and off to the races I went. The interesting irony is the completely different feel of the stories: The Cubs on Catalina is springtime, youthful and innocent . . . while The Brooklyn Dodgers in Cuba is booze and broads and betting and bullets – a steamy summer night.
This is about where I realized that this book would likely include much of the gossip and wild tales I had been seeking. So, instead of trying to recapture his words I thought it would be best to let the rest of the interview continue in his own words. It's a bit long, but it is really worth the read- especially the final part when I ask, "was Ernest Hemingway a Dodger fan?" You Betcha!

Did you have an opportunity to interview, not only former Dodgers from the time period, but also Cuban players and fans?
That was such a treat – I got to interview 41 Dodgers who played there (including the last living player from 1941 and the last one from 1942, helping add to the depth beyond the 1947 story). I also talked to about three dozen other non-Dodgers who played there. The timing was good but sad: two dozen have died since the interviews, so a silver lining is at least their tales are recorded here.

I did get to interview some Cuban players and fans, including Connie Marrero – who’s now the oldest living major leaguer (99) – living with his family in Cuba, lucid as can be. (On pitching against DiMaggio: “I punched him out” . . . about Robinson stealing 2nd: “on the catcher, not on me” . . . on seeing Castro pitch; was Fidel any good? “Let us say he liked to pitch.”)
Did you visit Cuba?
I got to go to Cuba twice, and was lucky enough to go with the guy who opened the CNN Bureau in Havana – so he knew the lay of the land, and had great contacts. Got to watch a game at the same ballpark in Havana where the Dodgers played in ’47 (sitting in Castro’s box, no less; alas, el Prejidente was not on site that night).
Who did you enjoy interviewing the most?
The interviews that leap to mind are Jesse Gonder, because he’d say absolutely anything, and Eddie Stevens – an asterisk to history. He was the Dodger starting first-baseman when ’46 ended, and if you’ll remember Rickey had Robinson play first as a rookie (to avoid spikes from Dixie that might happen to miss the bag at 2nd by well-planned mistake). Ed Stevens is the guy who, in the gritty reality of history, literally lost his job to the Great Experiment. It was fascinating to hear his (very gracious) take on it.

Vin Scully, too – the most gracious human being who ever walked the planet. He gets to Dodger Stadium at 4 PM for a 7 o’clock game – still working that hard, after all these decades. And I’m waiting in the hall up in the press box for about five minutes as he’s doing some prep work, and he comes out and extends his hand and Vin Scully’s first words to me, as he shakes his head reticently, are, “I’m sorry I kept you waiting!” I want to say, “Are you kidding? You’re Vin Scully! I’m sorry to be breathing the same AIR you’re breathing, and you’re apologizing to me?” And then, he proceeded to tell me some great stories that I don’t think had been published before – again, that great miracle of spring training not counting, so none of it mattered, nobody asked about it, nobody wrote about it.

While in Cuba, I almost did get an interview with Castro. They play this funny cloak-and-dagger game. You get an e-mail saying, “The specialist is familiar.” (CIA-crypted translation: Castro knows you’re here.) Then you wait around and all of a sudden get a call to be in your room for the next few hours. False alarm. Repeat 2-3 times, hope an entourage shows up, but this was a few seasons too late – his health had diminished and we never got that interview. But plenty of the ballplayers had hilarious Castro encounters on the field – Gonder, Clyde King, Gene Mauch, Yaz, Stu Locklin, and of course Lasorda.

It’s a joy to call an old ballplayer who had a cup of coffee at the Show 60 years ago and let him re-live his Elysian days for a while. And you learn an important interview technique: If you call this 80-year-old up and say, “Lefty, what’d you boys do in Havana in 1947?” he will invariably say, “Aw, I don’t remember, that was too long ago.” But if you start with, “Hey, Lefty, I just talked to Scat Davis about . . . ” and he’ll interrupt with laughter and say, “Scat Davis, why, that ol’ son of a buck, I remember the time we snuck down the fire escape with Shotgun Shuba and Pee Wee to meet these pretty little senoritas . . . ” Those wonderful men are all so generous and helpful, every single one of ‘em.
Jim also provided some resource books that he used in his research.
Tommy’s autobiography contains some of these crazy Cuban tales, but it’s kinda like you speed over ‘em in his book because you want to get to the real story, the stuff with Fernando and Gibson and Garvey and the World Series. But the cool thing is, in this book, the whole focus is the springtime stories in Cuba, so they take center stage and seem to gain more meaning when they’re the spotlight, not the warm-up band.

Durocher’s book has some juicy ones too, including the middle-of-the-night meeting in a hotel kitchen in the Caribbean which changed the course of baseball history (Leo got wind of the anti-Jackie petition, and expressed his opinion; oh, to have been a fly on the wall. I’m sure he coined some of the obscenities we use today on that night). I love the irony of that – such an unlikely site for such a pivotal moment in National League history.

The best book, which is kinda lost to time, is Kirby Higbe’s autobiography, The High Hard One. Huh – Kirby Higbe? Why would Kirby Higbe write an autobiography? I know not, but I’m thrilled he did; it might just be the funniest baseball book of all time. It’s filled with Cuba tales, include plenty of Hemingway escapades. You should be able to find a used copy on ebay or
I understand there are over 200 vintage images of the Dodgers in Cuba, how did you ever find so many?
A little here, a little there. Libraries & historical societies in LA & Brooklyn. Vintage wirephotos from private collections. Copies from ballplayers’ scrapbooks. Baseball cards. Original shots in Cuba and Florida. And the best find, some archived photos from Cuba . . . which have never before seen the light of day here
I think the thing I look forward to reading about the most is Hemingway’s connection with the team. I don’t want to give away too much, but did Hugh Casey really kick his butt? Were there other Dodgers with as good as, or better, pugilistic skills?
Higbe’s book is a fantasyland of lost Hemingway tales, and I included a few (as well as other Hemingway stories from a few other Dodger quarters). Hig and ol’Case would literally sneak out and go to Papa’s and drink and drink and drink and put on boxing gloves and pound the stuffing out of each other all night long. Hall-of-Famer Billy Herman went along once too, but only once because he got a little nervous when Hemingway challenged him to fight: “We can have a duel. Knives. Guns. Swords. Any weapons you want.” So, there’s an entire chapter in my book devoted to Hemingway – the tales are so rich (and so plentiful).

Besides the baseball angle, as a writer Hemingway was a key part of my Cuba travels: I insisted on going to Cojimar, the fishing village from The Old Man and the Sea. Perhaps the highlight of my career as a writer was getting to have lunch at The Terrace, literally the same fabled bar where the Great Novel ends. Dude, I got tears in my eyes, looking down at the water from the window, where the tailbones of the Great Fish rested as the American tourist did not understand as the waiter tried to explain: “Tiburon.” Ay. And Dodgers drank there . . .
And finally, would it be fair to declare that one of the greatest American writers, Ernest Hemingway, was a Dodger fan?
There’s no doubt Hemingway was a big Dodger fan. For starters, all you have to do is read The Old Man and the Sea (among other works) and know he was a big baseball fan – there’s so much baseball detail in that book, including plenty of very-accurate references to the ballplayers being in Cuba (for instance, you might wonder why Dick Sisler gets so much ink, until you realize he was a bigger star there than here back then . . . Gonzalez and Luque . . . McGraw drinking at The Terrace . . . and of course, Dodger Durocher.) Add to that his residences in New York and Havana – the two Dodger cities in those days – and it’s pretty obvious that as a baseball fan he would’ve followed the Bums, before you even get to the most-importantly-obvious oh-yeah moment, he hung out with Dodgers and hunted with ‘em and fished with ‘em on his beloved Pilar and downed rum with ‘em and fought with ‘em and thus, with his mindset, considered them his brothers-in-manhood. So if ya love baseball, and the Dodgers are your hometown team (in not one but two of your hometowns), and you party with the boys in blue . . . yeah, Hemingway was a Dodger fan.

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